A conviction of a crime may have far-reaching consequences, both criminal and civil. When a person is convicted of a crime, the sentence imposed by the judge contains the criminal consequences, which may include imprisonment, probation, fines, and other punishments. Additional consequences, often called collateral consequences or penalties, also flow from conviction of a crime, but they ordinarily are separate from the criminal sentence—they may arise automatically from the conviction and not be specifically imposed or even mentioned at sentencing in the criminal case. Collateral consequences may be imposed by state or federal law (de jure consequences) and may include ineligibility for a professional license, loss of the right to possess a firearm, and other disabilities and disqualifications. Some are mandatory, such as the loss of the right to vote following a felony conviction; some are discretionary, such as the revocation of a professional license by a licensing agency. The Collateral Consequences Assessment Tool (C-CAT), a free online research tool created by the School of Government, contains detailed information about the collateral consequences imposed by North Carolina law. Some collateral consequences are not mentioned in the law but occur because of how others may view a criminal record (de facto consequences). For example, although not required by law to do so, an employer may decide not to hire a person because of a criminal conviction.[1] Landlords, colleges, and other entities may react similarly. “Extensive and sticky CCs [collateral consequences] of conviction represent one of the salient facets of contemporary America’s penal system.”[2]

Some jurisdictions limit consideration of a person’s criminal record. For example, some jurisdictions prohibit entities from considering low-level offenses or non-conviction records, such as arrests or dismissals. Some jurisdictions have “ban-the-box” policies, which preclude entities from inquiring into a person’s criminal record during the early stages of the application process. See Collateral Consequences Resource Center, New national study finds ban-the-box policies generally effective (Mar. 31, 2017). The Governor of North Carolina has issued an executive order banning state agencies from inquiring into a person’s criminal history during the initial stages of an employment process, from considering non-conviction records, and from considering convictions that do not relate to the employment. See N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, Furthering Fair Chance Policies in State Government Employment, Executive Order No. 158 (Aug. 18, 2020). Local governments or private entities in North Carolina also may implement such restrictions. See Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Ban the Box Community Initiative Guide (discussing North Carolina counties that have adopted policies).

Legislation enacted in 2013 in North Carolina limited the authority of occupational licensing boards to deny a license based on an applicant’s criminal record and directed licensing boards to consider various factors in deciding whether to deny licensure. As revised in 2013, the applicable statute, G.S. 93B-8.1, still required denial of a license if the law otherwise required denial, as provided in many occupational licensing statutes, and allowed licensing boards discretion in weighing the statutory factors. Legislation enacted in 2019 went considerably further. S.L. 2019-91 (H 770). G.S. 93B-8.1 now provides that an occupational licensing board may deny a license only if it finds that the applicant’s criminal conviction history is “directly related” to the licensed occupation. The only exceptions are when federal law makes denial mandatory or the conviction is for a crime that is violent or sexual in nature. A board may not automatically deny licensure based on an applicant’s criminal history and may not deny an applicant a license based on a determination that a conviction is for a crime of “moral turpitude,” a vague term that appears in various occupational license statutes. These provisions apply to both independent occupational licensing boards and state licensing boards, described in G.S. 93B-1, and include several procedural protections for applicants for occupational licenses. See John Rubin, Occupational Licensing Reforms and Criminal Convictions, N.C. Crim. L., UNC Sch. of Gov’t Blog (Oct. 15, 2019); see also S.L. 2020-77, Sec. 5(b) (S 488) (providing in G.S. 93B-8.1(c1) that the revised statutes should not be construed as authorizing a licensing board to require an applicant to consent to a criminal history check as a condition of licensure); S.L. 2023-46, Sec. 11 (H 103) (clarifying in G.S. 93B-8.1(c) that if a licensing board requires an applicant to consent to a criminal history check, it may deny licensure to an applicant who refuses to consent). For a further discussion of these legislative changes, see Alex Phipps & Caitlin Little, North Carolina Freedom to Work Act & Professional Licensure (Feb. 2024).

Once a criminal record is expunged, North Carolina law limits consideration of the expunged matter by both public and private entities. See infra Overview: Effect of Expunction. A certificate of relief, another form of relief in North Carolina, also limits the potential impact of a criminal conviction by eliminating mandatory consequences and requiring boards and other entities to consider the certificate favorably in making discretionary determinations. See infra Certificates of Relief.

This guide reviews the mechanisms available under North Carolina law for obtaining relief from the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. It focuses on expunctions, certificates of relief, and petitions to restore rights or eliminate restrictions. In addition, it discusses pardons, motions for appropriate relief, and innocence determinations. This guide does not review procedures that may be available before specific boards, commissions, or agencies for restoring or maintaining a right or benefit. This guide does not attempt to answer all of the possible questions that readers may have about North Carolina relief mechanisms. Common questions are discussed in this guide in Appendixes: Frequently Asked Questions.

This guide contains hyperlinks to forms, opinions, selected statutes, and other free online resources. North Carolina statutes also can be viewed on the General Statutes page of the North Carolina General Assembly’s website. Federal statutes may be found on various websites, including the U.S. Code page of the website of the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law School. Court decisions and legal reference materials that do not contain a link were located through fee-based legal research services, but they may be accessible online elsewhere.

This guide does not purport to provide legal advice in individual cases. Readers should refer to relevant parts of the North Carolina General Statutes and other laws and seek advice from a qualified attorney as needed.

[1] See, e.g., Michael G. Okun & John Rubin, Employment Consequences of a Criminal Conviction in North Carolina, Popular Gov’t, Winter 1998, at nn.4–11 and accompanying text. An employer’s use of criminal history information in making employment decisions is unlawful if it has a disparate impact on minorities or others protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and does not come within a permissible exception. See U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n, EEOC Enforcement Guidance No. 915.002, Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Apr. 25, 2012). But see Texas v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, 933 F.3d 433, 450–51 (5th Cir. 2019) (holding that EEOC lacked authority to promulgate guidance).

[2] See John Rubin, A Different Approach to “Collateral” Consequences of a Conviction, N.C. Crim. L., UNC Sch. of Gov’t Blog (Nov. 15, 2018), quoting Alessandro Corda, The Collateral Consequence Conundrum: Comparative Genealogy, Current Trends, and Future Scenarios 69, 76, in After Imprisonment: Studies in Law, Politics and Society (Austin Sarat ed., 2018).